Getting Acquainted with Oolong

What tea lover doesn't love oolong, the strain of Camellia sinensis bred, cultivated, and processed to emphasize the plant's floral nature? In oolong, it's as though the characteristics expressed in the flowers of other camellia varieties have been sublimated into the leaf. The big, thick leaves bask in the sun during late spring and early summer, developing outrageous amounts of flavor, aroma, and nutrients that a great teamaster can coax into the cup through a meticulous regimen of withering (when enzymatic action begins), rolling (to break down cellular structure, helping the essential compounds mix and hastening the oxidation process), and firing (to remove excess moisture, concentrate flavor and aroma, halt oxidation, and sometimes add distinctive "roasted" notes). That plus gong fu brewing technique!

Traditionally, oolongs are made to the formula of three parts red, seven parts green--in other words, about 30% of the leaf (mainly the edge) is oxidized red, while the remainder stays green. In a good quality oolong, after the leaf is brewed this mixture of colors will be quite obvious. The appearance of the infusion varies depending on the type of tea and brewing technique, but it's often a robust golden or amber color with an unmistakable floral nose that's sometimes mixed with fruit or charcoal (too much charcoal is undesirable). The leaves are always large, sometimes shockingly so, as when what look to be a few small pebbles of tighly balled leaf quickly swell to occupy the entire teapot.

Another interesting fact about oolongs: unlike green tea that's carefully selected to be only leaves and buds, oolongs always contain some stem. Typically, oolong is harvested in groups of three or four fresh yet well-developed leaves. The distinctive "woody" stem flavor is intrinsic to the oolong experience.

All great oolongs come from one of four areas:

  • Wu Yi Shan, in Fujian Province, where oolongs are believed to have originated. This is the home of the great, high-fired yan cha. Wu Yi oolongs are rolled into the long, dark twisted shape that gives oolong (wu long, literally "dark dragon") its name.
  • Anxi, also in Fujian, home of the beloved tie guan yin, a more overtly floral and fruity variety with added complexity from roasting. Rolled into a tight ball, these leaves are traditionally well fired.
  • The Feng Huang Shan (Phoenix Mountain) area in northern Guangdong Province, near the border with Fujian. Phoenix Mountain oolongs are unlike any other, extravagantly sweet and floral to the point you'd swear they've been scented (they haven't). They're rolled in the "dark dragon" shape and moderately fired. Tea drinking is so ingrained in the culture of this region that its population is said to consume more than anywhere else in China.
  • Taiwan, which has developed its own style of green oolong, a sweet, floral, and richly flavorful tea that retains more "green" notes than any other kind of oolong. Similar to their cousins from Anxi, most Taiwan oolongs are tightly rolled into balls, but they're only lightly fired.

Like any tea, oolongs can be brewed in the all-purpose gaiwan, but this type of tea is classically (and perhaps most rewardingly) enjoyed gong fu style in a well-seasoned yi xing teapot. To best capture and appreciate its delightful floral essence, we recommend a pot with a somewhat domed lid. The typically heavy body of zi sha teapots is ideal for yan cha, while zhu ni, which can be a bit thinner, can help moderate the brewing temperature, highlighting florals. But this is quibbling, as any oolong will profit from being prepared in a fine yi xing pot.

Oolong is an all-season tea, as welcome in summer heat as in winter chill. I'll never forget the experience of climbing a steep, rugged tea mountain in Wu Yi's late summer heat and humidity, with Roy and a group of tea lovers. Upon arriving at an idyllic farmhouse on the mountaintop we were served big bowls of lukewarm yan cha from a huge, rustic teapot. I've never had a drink so satisfying and refreshing! Equally, there's nothing more inviting on a cold, dark winter day than to walk into the teahouse and see the chipped little house zhu ni teapot stuffed with Monkey-Picked Tie Guan Yin, alongside a steaming kettle.

Just as spring is the season for green tea, so is summer the season for oolong. The 2009 oolongs will start arriving in the teahouse soon. In the meantime, we're still enjoying this spring's great green teas and waiting a bit impatiently for the next tea season.